The battle for the future of UCL

The UCU strike at University College London is about much more than pensions: it’s about the future of the university.

As we head into another week of strikes, university life will once again be disrupted. This week will see hundreds of UCL academic staff and students picket their department buildings from the early hours. Instead of lectures and classes it will be a week of teach-outs and demonstrations.

Next week will likely be a similar story. Unless an agreement between the UCU and Universities UK is reached, the Bloomsbury campus will be shut down again as staff oppose the proposed changes to their pensions. At UCL, however, it’s not just that ‘business as usual’ is being disrupted: the business model of the uni itself is being rejected.

We are engaged in a battle for the future of our university and the pensions dispute is the frontline.

There is no doubting that UCL is at the forefront of the neoliberal project of marketising higher education. Since 2005, “London’s Global University” has more than doubled in size, increasing total student numbers from 17,000 to 40,000 – with plans having been discussed to increase to 60,000 in the future.

The rise in cost of tuition – the average student now leaves university with debts of £45,500 – has accelerated the growth and expansion of the university. With each student comes at least £9,000 per year in funding – and masters and international students pay considerably more. Through the aggressive expansion of student numbers, senior management would claim they are moving to secure the financial stability for the university in coming years. The equation seems simple: more students equals more income.

Yet, the leadership at UCL is currently under investigation after being accused of excluding members of the Council – the highest decision-making body at the institution – from critical decisions regarding the university’s £1.25bn estate expansion plan. These plans, it is argued, have exposed the university to acute financial risk, even leaving the institution – in Provost Michael Arthur’s words – “straining at the edges”.

Alongside this, an informal meeting of the university’s Academic Board on 7 February voted 94 per cent in favour of a motion of no confidence in the governance of the university. Two weeks ago, a Students’ Union general assembly voted in favour of a similar vote of no confidence with 97 per cent of the votes being cast in favour. It is becoming increasingly apparent that senior management at this university have set out in a particular direction – one the academic community has no intention of following.

For student and academic staff at UCL it is starting to go wrong more often than not

Both of these no confidence votes took place before the onset of industrial action at the university but this does not mean they are unconnected. Rather, the pressures driving student discontent, academic dissatisfaction with the university’s leadership and the pension cuts are all incontrovertibly linked. The growth of the university in recent years has come at a significant cost.

For students, this has translated into an increasingly precarious existence. We are expected to compete not only for better grades to justify the so-called investment that is now our education, but also for space in libraries and lecture theatres. A diminishingly small fraction of time must be divided by academic staff among ever-more students and for an appointment with the university psychological support department, a six week wait is normal.

For academic staff, these conditions are reversed. They are teaching to overcrowded rooms, have more essays and exam papers to mark and less attention for the education of each student. All while there are greater demands to act as de facto therapist for those unable to access the support they need. When it goes wrong, student-facing staff in our departments and faculties are the ones who are expected to pick up the pieces.

This changed reality of existence for student and academic staff at UCL – in which it is starting to go wrong more often than not – is a direct result of financial decision making pushed through by the leadership at the university. To match the rapid growth of student numbers, the university announced in 2016 that it was embarking on a £1.25 billion expansion plan, including the £483m UCL East project to build a new campus on the former site of the Olympic Park in Stratford. Yet, the purpose of the new UCL East campus is not to alleviate the space issues as they exist in Bloomsbury. Rather, it will enable the further expansion of student numbers by another 6,000.

As staff walk out for the third week of industrial action, students must stand alongside them. We should be under no illusions: we are engaged in a battle for the future of our university. The pensions dispute currently marks out the frontlines.

Those leading this university have pushed through this expansions without adequate consultation of the academic community. All while turning back to us and saying that there is no money left to pay the staff at the university a decent pension.

The reality is that there is a sharp disconnect between the academic community and management class at UCL. The decisions shaping the direction of the university as we head into the future are being taken without proper consideration of the consequences for education and research. Of course, those in leadership would disagree but the 94 per cent margin in the academics’ vote of no confidence says otherwise.

The UCL council is composed primarily of a mixture of individuals with backgrounds in finance, real estate, oil and finance again, and of the seven Vice-Provosts at the university, only three are active academics. But, this isn’t where the real power lies at this university.

If the last few weeks have proven anything, it is that those leading University College London are nothing without the support of the staff and students at the institution. When we stand together, it is possible for us to shut down the university.

But this means that there are no side-lines in this battle, no position from which we can watch on as a neutral spectator. Those in leadership at this university will attempt to split students away from supporting staff. They know that any inaction by the student body is a tacit endorsement of the status quo, for heightened competition and marketisation of education. We must instead demand an end to ‘business as usual’, to business as the driving force in our education. It’s time we stood with academic staff. It’s time we reclaimed our university.

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